Criminal Record #5 – Gay Desire and the Psychosexual Thriller

From police procedurals to heists, American film noir and French policiers via South Korean serial killers, Criminal Record is a column delving into the rich and heady cinematic history of crime films. This week, a look at gay thrillers of the last ten years.

Sex, crime and danger have long been a potent mix in film. In an industry long dominated by straight male anxieties, sex and danger have often been associated with honeytraps and femme fatales, a fear of women using their natural charisma and good looks to subjugate and gain power over the alpha male. Where would the crime genre be without that uniquely Western anxiety about sex?

For most of cinema’s existence, the expression of gay desires has been mostly closeted or hidden, as it has with wider social mores regarding same-sex desire. Often, homosexuality in cinema is either coded with danger and malice, or gay characters in crime films are victims of the ‘bury your gays’ trope, where their sexual transgressions are punished by heteronormative society. 

The list of genre cinema in which gay desire is a matter-of-fact rather than a dangerous obsession is vanishingly small – but the last ten years or so have seen an increase in genre films made by and about gay people. These films have used the tropes of a century’s worth of cinema – trench-coated policemen, doppelgangers, and the dashingly sexy male star – to specifically homoerotic ends. It’s culminated in a sub-genre this writer likes to refer to as ‘Gay Vertigos’ – often featuring hot dudes banging and then getting obsessed with each other afterwards. Below then, is a quick look at a few films that literally put the cock into Hitchcock.

Stranger by the Lake - Michel (Christophe Paou) and Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) sit naked on the lakeside in the sun.

Perhaps the most well-known recent example of the gay-themed mystery is Stranger by the Lake (Alain Guiraudie, 2013). A hit at Cannes when it premiered, it’s set around a picturesque lake which doubles as a cruising spot for the local gay community. When protagonist Franck (Pierre Delodanchamps) witnesses his crush Michel (Christophe Paou) drown a man in the lake, he decides not to inform the police as they begin snooping around, caught between his carnal desires and being complicit in the crime. 

The previously peaceful ecosystem of a gay community is not just upset by the crime in its midst, but by the presence of the police – who, for many LGBT+ people are a long-term symbol of oppression. The police bring with them suspicion, but not one rooted in criminality. This is suspicion rooted in the breaking of heteronormative structures – everyone is a suspect because they are gay, not because they are potentially a murderer. The intense atmosphere of suspicion pushes the film to its inevitably tragic climax. Whilst there is an element of danger to gay desire here – the historical presence of AIDS, and its particular relationship to the gay community remains a traumatic and painful memory that lives on, and you could read its allegories into Stranger by the Lake) – this sense of danger is magnified by the presence of heteronormative society in its midst.

M/M - Mathias (Nicolas Maxim Endlicher) stares sensually at the camera

M/M is a brilliant (and overlooked) thriller from Berlin-based Canadian filmmaker Drew Lint. It’s the sort of film that could only really be made in the German capital – full of modernist architecture, pounding techno and hot dudes banging in underground clubs. We follow Matthew (Antoine Lahaie), a Quebecois Canadian émigré who falls in love with the mysterious Mathias (Nicolas Maxim Endlicher). Eventually, he develops an obsession with him and inveigles his way into his life, stalking him on social media. When Mathias gets into an accident and lands up in the hospital, Matthew breaks into and starts living in his apartment. Gradually the two begin to meld into one; as Matthew dresses and behaves increasingly like Matthias. 

The Vertigo influence is all over this one, as identity and desire get endlessly confused. But where Vertigo is about one man’s obsession with someone who may or may not be the object of his desire, M/M sees the object of desire fold into the obsessor. The melding of two people into one single image is something that an explicitly same-sex identity thriller can confront – if Vertigo’s doppelganger is exterior, M/M’s is interior. The desire to want what you can’t have is exacerbated by the brutalist alienation of Berlin’s urban space and modern tech – all harsh lines and the blue glare of LCD screens at night, with precious little time or space to actually talk to our fellow human beings. Something like four lines of dialogue are spoken through the film, with much of it thriving in the smouldering looks of its stars and Lint’s neon-drenched vision of Berlin. Gay desire here is purely sexual, with the urban space around the characters driving a wedge between them, emotional connection becoming impossible.

Sequin in a Blue Room - Sequin (Conor Leach) gazes off-camera whilst inside a blue room.

Where M/M touches on the distancing aspects of social media, Sequin in a Blue Room, directed by Samuel Van Grinsven, makes it the very core of its story. 16-year-old Sequin (Conor Leach) poses as an 18-year-old on a Grindr-like app, hooking up with anonymous older men and immediately blocking them after their encounters, disappearing into the night. That is until two events disturb Sequin’s equilibrium of instant gratification – the first is an older man who develops an unhealthy obsession with Sequin, the second is the presence of a mysterious figure whom Sequin hooks up with at an anonymous sex party (at the eponymous blue room), leading himself down his own path of sexual obsession. 

The interconnectivity between desire and obsession is a tricky, thorny subject that a lot of films get grossly wrong, but it is not desire itself (gay or otherwise) that is the progenitor of stalkerish behaviour here. Rather it’s the societal culture we build around desire – the dopamine rush of social media’s instant gratification and its aimless lure, the way that anonymity allows us to build fantasies without having to engage with their realities. I once heard social media described as “opening the fridge when you’re not hungry” – truer words never spoken – and the film is an object lesson in the internet’s ability to hook us and allow us to give in to our worst impulses. Conor Leach in the title role is a revelation – a feline, sensual star, with knife-sharp cheekbones, he looks like a ginger Alain Delon, and there’s something of Delon’s placidness and stillness in him – an adolescent caught in a snapshot of burgeoning adulthood.

In this small coterie of films there is a notion that desire is more complex than primal lust. Across these films, desire is a smorgasbord of cultural and social influences, feeding into itself and informing how we respond sexually. In and of itself, desire is a neutral feeling – what adorns it with malice is the structure around us. Whether it’s the presence of the police and the inherent suggestion of criminality that comes with a police presence, whether it’s the way that cities can feel like they’re designed to push us apart, or whether it’s the way social media has edged itself into the part of our brains that feels most rewarded by the instant rush of a ‘like’, desire is not a simple one-way street. 

The fact that an increasing amount of gay cinema is increasingly willing to take on genre tropes to tell more varied stories than just ones of forbidden lust is a sign of a culture more willing to engage with the notion of gay desire. The films mentioned above are all focused around male-male desires, and you can easily argue that there is an equivalent lack of genre films apparent in the other acronyms which form the LGBT+ banner (although the success of Killing Eve and The Handmaiden does suggest that change is afoot). As non-heteronormative desires break through on screen, how will they smash together with the tried-and-tested tropes and worlds of crime cinema?